Saturday, January 13, 2007

neural response

I've been out fishing lately.

I started thinking when listening to a concert recently. It was
 an accomplished opera singer, who performed, by all accounts,
 very well. I was quite pleased that I could actually enjoy myself, 
and not just analyse her singing to death. (:

However, there was time for some analysis too. I couldn't help
noticing how she sang with basically the same timbre
throughout. This is not unusual. It is what most singers seem to 

She used a fairly wide range of "indicators" to signal emotion, 
and we, attentive listeners, were eager to comply and respond
with the appropriate emotion.  I wouldn't have reacted to this 
a few years ago, but having realised how much a singer can 
actually vary his/her vocal colour, you can't help not longing
to hear that on stage. 

Actually, the thinking started long before this. A couple of years 
ago, I listened to a live rendition of "Nessun dorma", with a 
reasonably skilled tenor. His middle range was uninteresting,
though, which obviously becomes problematic in "Nessun
dorma". To exaggerate a bit, he stumbled through the aria and
made a nice recovery on the high notes. To my surprise, my
friends hadn't noticed his relative failure in the 90% of the
aria that doesn't consist of "money notes". I guess that's why
they call them "money notes" - if a tenor can only deliver the
high Cs, all is forgiven (in Nessun dorma, it's a H).

So here's the theory. Nessun dorma is all about anticipation,
but since everyone in the audience is so full of anticipation of
that last high H, the singer can probably get away with just
indicating the rest of the song. After all, none of it is real.
The artist builds an illusion, and we, the audience fill in the

So why go through all that trouble to deliver real emotion,
when it's obviously possible to just indicate, and let the
audience do the work? Shouldn't there be a difference, after all?

I started googling for neurological papers to find out if we are
actually able to detect what goes on in the brain when e.g.
listening to singing.

I turns out that we can - almost.

Robert Zatorre in Montrëal seems to be on the forefront of
neurological studies related to music. One paper has the
impressive title

"Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions".

Unfortunately for me, trying to prove my theory, we seem to
have some way to go before we fully understand how the brain
processes emotional content in music.

It turns out that listening to music triggers a lot more brain 
activity than does e.g. speech. Several different parts of the 
brain (even the "reptile brain") are engaged, and the result 
is collated into a unified experience.

This paper does claim to support the hypothesis that "there
may be a dissociation between perceptual and emotional
responses to music

Furthermore, the paper states that "it is possible that music
that induces different types of emotions would recruit
different neural substrates. This may be especially likely
if emotion is elicited through memory or association,
rather than spontaneously

That last bit seemed to relate to what I was digging for. I was
thinking that if an artist uses physical or vocal "gestures"
to indicate to the audience what they should feel, this may
have the effect that the audience relates to the music in a
slightly more intellectual way, having to draw on their
memory for the proper understanding of the gestures. 

Perhaps other components in the music speak directly to 
our more intuitive systems, triggering a direct emotional 
response which we will have great difficulty suppressing?

Of course, tons of complications arise if one would try to
measure this in a scientific study.

Of course, it could be that our willingness to be swept away by
the artist is the most important factor in enjoying a musical
performance. Perhaps our brains are clever enough to
provide us with the necessary emotions if we just don't get
in its way? Call me stubborn, but I don't think that's the
whole truth.

No comments: